Politics & Government

Senate approves constitutional amendments on religion, redistricting

FRANKFORT — The Kentucky Senate on Thursday approved three proposed amendments to the state Constitution, including one dubbed the Religious Freedom Act.

Senate Bill 158 would "prohibit any human authority from burdening actions that are based on religious beliefs, except in support of a compelling governmental interest using the least restrictive means to further that interest."

The bill's sponsor, Republican Sen. Jimmy Higdon of Lebanon, told his fellow senators that it was designed to protect Kentuckians' free exercise of religion from unnecessary restriction by government.

As an example, Higdon cited a case heard Thursday by the state Supreme Court. Amish men in Graves County have been jailed for refusing to pay fines for failure to hang orange reflective signs on their horse-drawn buggies, citing religious reasons.

"Senate Bill 158 makes sure that Kentucky's religious beliefs are protected," Higdon said.

But Sen. Tim Shaughnessy, D-Louisville, said he couldn't see a legitimate reason for the bill.

Religion is not persecuted in Kentucky, and in fact, every session of the Senate, including Thursday's, opens with a public prayer, Shaughnessy said. Were religion truly under attack, crowds from many denominations would pack the Capitol to express a need for protection, he said.

"Where is this challenge? Where is this threat to religious freedom in Kentucky?" he asked.

The measure was approved 34-4 and now goes to the House.

Also Thursday, the Republican-led Senate approved:

■ SB 27, which would establish new standards for the legislature when it redraws its own House and Senate districts every 10 years. (The redistricting plan approved this year was declared unconstitutional by the Kentucky Supreme Court.) It also would require the legislature to remain in session without pay if it fails to complete redistricting by April 15, the mandatory deadline to end a session in even-numbered years.

■ SB 10, which would give the General Assembly more authority over administrative regulations initiated by the executive branch. It would specify that an administrative regulation disapproved by lawmakers would be void and unenforceable, and could not be reissued in the same or similar language for at least a year.

The bills proceed to the House. House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, has expressed support for the amendment on redistricting, but he was not available late Thursday to comment on the others.

If the House approves the measures, voters will see them on the ballot in November.

Rep. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, said it was ironic that the Senate, run by conservative Republicans who say they revere "the Founding Fathers," seems so eager to rewrite so much of the Constitution. Sections 5, 28 and 33 of the Constitution would be revised under the changes approved Thursday.

"We all talk about the Founding Fathers and their brilliance, and then every chance we get we ... mess with their brilliance," Stein said.